Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
“It is easy to say things under the cloak of anonymity and disappear.”
“Since the ideal forum for discussions regarding the total ban of institutions with about 130 members is an online newspaper and its anonymous message board….”
“This comment thread will not give you a representative sample of the Swarthmore population”
“Why people seem to think that The Daily Gazette comments are a court of law astounds me.”
“Once again, the comments section of the DG proves to be useless in fostering any progressive dialogue.”
As the campus wide discussion on the future of Greek Life at Swarthmore continues to move forward, the comment section of The Daily Gazette has emerged as the verbal battleground for the ongoing debate. With over 500 comments spanning across ten different articles thus far, it’s safe to say that The Daily Gazette’s comment section plays as important a part of the online newspaper as its articles, opening up an easily accessible public forum for discussion and debate. Yet the current system is not without its flaws.
More than anything else, it is the online comment section that distinguishes The Daily Gazette from other news media on campus. Within seconds after an article has been posted, any reader has a chance to respond and let their voice be heard under the hidden barrier of invisibility. This allows all commenters the paradoxical possibility of being completely hidden and yet totally public at the same time. In the comment section, everyone is on equal footing; everyone is given the same amount of space to voice their views, creating a system whereby the only meaningful way of distinguishing between comments is an up/down rating system regulated by other unknown readers.
With as sensitive an issue as the total ban of Greek Life at Swarthmore on the table, it came as no surprise that the anonymous online forum gave way to accusations and aggressive verbal attacks from all sides. Emblematic of such rhetoric were the comments on Parker Murray’s recent Op-Ed that implicitly compared the article to yellow journalism and questioned the veracity of his claims. With nothing to hold individuals accountable, it became all too easy for commenters to recklessly hurl their words like grenades, leaving the mess they created for all to see and others to clean up. Indeed, with so little regulation, the comment section can easily devolve into an unwieldy cacophony of voices, a space in which only the most controversial statements rise to prominence.
Such an environment, one that not only allows but fosters extremism, can often seem to stand in marked contrast to the progressive, solution-oriented dialogue that The Daily Gazette’s comment section is ostensibly supposed to cultivate. As someone who has authored several pieces for this newspaper, I’ve seen firsthand the marked contrast in civility between face to face conversations and dialogue on the online realm. While those who confronted me in person treated my ideas with respect and sought to work with me towards finding mutual consensus, much of the initial feedback in the comment section attacked and dismissed my article as “asinine”, “sickening”, and “idiotic.” This is not to say that those comments were without substantive merit but instead to note the aggressive and uncooperative tone that accompanied the early critiques. This combative commenting style, mostly attributed to anonymous individuals, continues to generate and characterize the online debate on Greek Life at Swarthmore. The key question that needs to be asked, however, is whether this form of debate is productive and useful to the community at large.
Those who argue in favor of anonymous commenting may argue that a decline in civility is a small price to pay for the ability to express unpopular views and confront controversial topics. After all, who among us doesn’t desire the opportunity to shed ourselves of all accountability and speak ‘truth’ to the masses without fear that our words will come back to haunt us? Yet if you know that your opinion will be either drowned out or shut down by the cries of others, then why voice it at all? All too often, anonymous comments seemingly focus on tearing down and vilifying other commenters, arguments, and individuals. If the enabling environment is at the same time unwelcoming and unreceptive, then even an invisibility cloak is insufficient motivation for a sizable portion of the student body to comment. In such situations, debate is not catalyzed but rather stalled, as otherwise reasonable individuals are dissuaded from commenting, thus leaving the comment section to be ruled by a sea of shouting voices.
Though unmoderated anonymity may in certain situations bring out maliciousness and cruelty, its redeeming qualities cannot be ignored. The same freedom that allows some to post discriminatory and libelous comments allows many others to express views that they otherwise wouldn’t in a face to face conversation. Survivor stories in particular are a poignant example of the empowerment and honesty anonymity has the ability to enable. Moreover, anonymity lets the ideas and the content of the post speak for themselves, liberating the commenter from the self-consciousness that often regulates their everyday interactions. Truth can indeed be told through this protective shield, though it may sometimes take a form readers find uncomfortable. Even the worst comments in The Daily Gazette serve an important role, reminding us that beneath Swarthmore’s politically correct exterior there lies a darker and more sinister side to our personalities, a side that manifests itself in the words we type but do not wish to say aloud.
If we admit, then, that an anonymous comment section is a necessary and vital component of The Daily Gazette, are we resigned to accept the status quo? More aggressive moderation by the editors is one possible alternative, and the elimination of clearly inflammatory comments would undoubtedly improve the reading experience. Defining and identifying what constitutes an inflammatory comment will of course be problematic and subjective. Still, in the interest of enhancing public online debate, such action may sometimes be necessary.
However, not even increased moderation can truly provide an effective counter for the rise of extremist views and an uncivil, aggressive tone. More effective change, I think, would come with the implementation of a ‘Highlights’ system similar to the one currently used by The New York Times, in which the editors of the newspaper selectively highlight a diverse array of comments to reflect the ongoing discussion and complement the arguments presented in the article itself. Under such a system, nuanced, thoughtful and reflective responses rise to the forefront as readers are given the ability to focus their attention towards only the comments that contribute most to discussion. In effect, this is essentially an improved version of the current rating system, which is plagued by the fact that there is no way to discern why a comment was rated up or down or indeed why a rating was given at all. While this moderated filter would not prevent inflammatory comments from being posted or accessed, it would prevent such comments from being immediately thrown into the public spotlight.
Ultimately, while anonymity has its uses, what we must come to terms with is the fact that, if we really want to have a productive conversation, we need to remove our masks and stand by our convictions and words. Only then can we reach common ground, resolve our differences, and move forward in our ongoing debates.